2010 Top Ten Twelve

This year I tried to limit my list to ten books, but I couldn’t decide which two of the following books should go: here are my top twelve books of the year.  I had no trouble deciding which two were my favorites.  They are listed at the bottom.

It was a great reading year for me.  Each of the books below impressed me so much that I have already either started reading or started acquiring the author’s back catalog (or marked that their front catalog should not be missed).

César Aira: The Literary Conference — “The Literary Conference borders on . . . no, delves into the ridiculous — in the best way possible.”  Last year I put Aira’s An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter as one of my top reads, and I could as easily have put his Ghosts.  Neither of these books was particularly funny, so I was surprised when I declared The Literary Conference to be “the funniest book I’ve read all year.”  With more titles due in 2011 (will he make my top-reads list three years in a row?), there is much Aira to look forward to — thankfully!  Next up?  The Seamstress in the Wind, coming in spring of 2011.

Jennifer Egan: A Visit from the Goon Squad — “I’m sure the book might still look like a stylistic, structurally ambitious flight of fancy.  I assure you that Egan pulls it off.  The ambition, the variety — they never cloud over the intimate settings she’s created where we can spend quiet moments with these compelling individuals.”  I’m still not sure why this novel composed of interconnected short stories — each in its own unique style — didn’t show up as a finalist for the National Book Award.  Surely it will show up in the awards early next year.  After this, I went back to read Egan’s lesser The Keep.  It was okay but didn’t do it for me.  Nevertheless, next up is Look at Me.

Michael Frayn: Headlong — “We have as fast-paced a narrative as one can hope to find.  Frayn’s writing is smooth, and very very funny.  Throw in some genuinely intriguing art history (as opposed to that falsely intriguing stuff making bestsellers), and it’s already a winner for me.  But now, throw in Frayn’s skill at tying the human drama to the art drama.”  I still find myself pulled into Brugel’s paintings.  I had already attended several of Frayn’s plays, but this was my first attempt at one of his novels.  I have gone back to read Spies, and I look forward to reading The Trick of It.  I might even read his memoir, My Father’s Fortune: A Life, which is coming out in February.

Damon Galgut: In a Strange Room — “I loved this book.  I was completely entranced.  I might hate reading books on the iPhone, but I wouldn’t know yet because this book is so good I would have enjoyed reading it while someone kicked me in the shin.”  Since it is out of context, I should probably explain: this is the first book I ever read successfully on an e-reader, and I hardly noticed the different medium so much did Galgut’s prose and story pull me in.  My pick for the Booker Prize, even though I loved the eventual winner too (which didn’t find its way onto this list, but easily could have).  Going to Galgut’s back catalog, I recently enjoyed The Good Doctor and can’t wait for The Imposter.

Alexander MacLeod: Light Lifting — “Perhaps I shouldn’t have started my Giller shortlist reading with this book.  It might not get any better.”  That turned out to be the case, and this book eventually went on to be the Shadow Giller’s choice (though I was quite taken by the Giller Prize winner).  This book of short stories is a debut collection that encourages readers that MacLeod is the rightful heir to his father’s exceptional talent.  Since MacLeod has no other book out, I cannot read his back catalog, though I would have if he had one, and I’m certainly in line for whatever he publishes next.

Brian Moore: The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne — “At just over 200 pages, I expected to breeze through it, but it demanded that I slow down — in a good way.  The language and the cadence of the story, at first delicate and then raucous, made it impossible to read quickly.  The best thing about this book is not the cover.”  That last sentence is saying quite a bit, since this is one of my favorite covers of the year.  This is such a creepy book, I couldn’t resist acquiring several of Moore’s back catalog.  I’m not sure what I’ll read next, but it will probably be either The Temptation of Eileen Hughes or Lies of Silence.

Harry Mulisch: The Assault — “This is a fantastic book about chance and fate, about guilt and innocence, all against the backdrop of the twentieth century as the big issues range from World War II to Budapest to nuclear weapon talks in the 1980s.  For all its scope, it remains intimate, just like that opening section when we looked on the four homes lined up in a row.”  I know a lot of people feel that the market for World War II books is oversaturated, but this one is not to miss.  I have what many consider Mulisch’s masterpiece, The Discovery of Heaven.  It is quite long, though, so I’m not exactly sure when I’ll get to it.

Cynthia Ozick: The Cannibal Galaxy — “Though this is a relatively short book, it is incredibly dense with both plot and idea.  The writing is top-notch.”  Ozick had a new book — Foreign Bodies — out this year, and it, too, is exceptional.  Still, I found that I connected more with this, a book about an aging pedagogue and his obsession with the mind of the mother of one of his students.  Ozick is critically acclaimed, but her books are difficult to acquire since a few are shamefully out of print.  I have her The Messiah of Stockholm on my need-to-read-soon list.  Then again, I have all of her books (save her first novel) on my need-to-read-soon list.

Larry Watson: Montana 1948 — “[L]ike So Long, See You Tomorrow, Montana 1948 is a special book, a classic piece of American literature not because it is widely read (though it should be) but because it simply is in its depiction of a facet of American life and counterlife.”  This was one of my favorite “quiet” books this year, and I hope that it eventually rises from relative obscurity.  I actually haven’t done much looking at Watson’s back catalog, but I’m interested in Justice, which examines the Hayden family (the subject of this book) in the late nineteenth-century.  I haven’t heard anything about it; then again, I hadn’t heard anything about this book either.

Edith Wharton: Ethan Frome — “Ethan Frome skirts a Romantic ending and punches the reader in the gut.”  Another of my favorite “quiet” books (how does a quiet book punch one in the gut?), this one looking at rural Massachusetts a little more than a century ago.  It is the perfect little book for a dark winter night.  After reading this novella I turned to Wharton’s The House of Mirth, and it was hard to know which of these two I liked more.  Next up is Wharton’s The Custom of the Country, which I’ve heard so much about and which recently made KFC’s best of the year list (also, K2D2 has written about it on his blog, and I know he’s a major fan).

Now for my two top books of the year.  They are not only my favorites of the year but also two favorites of my lifetime.  They are exceptional from any angle.  Unfortunately, one of the authors is dead and wrote only a few novels.  Fortunately, the other is very young.  That she was not on The New Yorker‘s 20 Under 40 shows a major blindspot for that list.

Maile Meloy: Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It — “I was so pleased with this collection I immediately marked Meloy as one of my favorite authors.”  This book of short stories is the best short story collection I’ve read in a long time.  Meloy’s controlled prose is simply in another league.  I’m sure it heightened my interest that many of these stories are set in Montana, just north of where I grew up.  (In fact, if you haven’t noticed, it seems that rural (even western) writing has won me over this year.)  This is Meloy’s second collection of short stories; her first, Half in Love, is just as good.  I have her two novels, Liars and Saints and A Family Daughter, in line.  In fall 2011 her first young adult novel, The Apothecary, will come out.  It sounds strange: a cold war novel featuring kids and magic.  She hope adults will be able to read it too.  I trust her.  Count me in.

John Williams: Butcher’s Crossing — “As an American reader, deeply interested in what literature has to say about this land, its promise, its spirituality, and its emptiness, Butcher’s Crossing hit me with the same force as (if not more than) Huckleberry Finn, Moby-Dick, The Age of InnocenceThe Great GatsbyMartin Dressler, American Pastoral, and Gilead.  Yes, I expected Butcher’s Crossing to be great, I expected it to be well written — people told me so — but I was shocked at how much it contained, at how well it balanced jubilance and heartbreak, innocence and depravity, all while reinventing the western to expose the fault lines the American Dream is founded upon.”  After reading Butcher’s Crossing, I read Williams’ National Book Award winner Augustus and the recently much revered Stoner.  I loved each of them as well (Augustus is a worthy award winner, and Stoner deserves every ounce of praise it has gotten — more, in fact; each of the three books deserves more), but, to me, Butcher’s Crossing is Williams’ masterpiece.  Williams only wrote four novels.  He didn’t much care for his first, Nothing But the Night; however, where can I turn next?  Plus, I learned earlier this year that, while the author may be right that a certain book is not a masterpiece, it doesn’t meant it is not worth reading.

26 thoughts on “2010 Top Ten Twelve”

  1. Lee Monks says:

    Trevor, wonderful list! And a reminder of one or two books I had marked up but that had slipped down the list. And once again: thanks for the heads-up on Jennifer Egan. I’d probably – at a push – have to put that and Galgut top of my 2010 list.

  2. John Self says:

    A terrifically tempting list, Trevor, and I can only rub my hands in eager anticipation of reading more Aira, Williams and Ozick myself, not to mention the UK release of Jennifer Egan (I make her sound like a political prisoner) in March 2011. I also noted last week in my local bookshop has a copy of Maile Meloy’s book, which I momentarily considered lifting off the shelf to look at, but didn’t. I will now remedy that.

    The only thing I don’t like about your list is that it looks much more appealing than my own (which will go up at the end of the month)…

  3. John Self says:

    Oh and for more Brian Moore, I’d recommend The Doctor’s Wife, The Luck of Ginger Coffey,The Emperor of Ice-Cream, Lies of Silence, I am Mary Dunne or Catholics. This reminds me of my own uncompleted project to read all of Moore’s books (Eileen Hughes is among those I haven’t read).

  4. Lee Monks says:

    Come on, John – bang it up now! I’ve got books to buy for folk!

  5. Trevor says:

    I did have a good reading year, John. And I’m heartened to know that my list is somewhat valuable to you — it seems like in years past all of my top reads are those I’ve read due to your recommendation :) .

    You certainly should pick up Meloy. I’m not sure if you remember, but I started out the year planning on reading all of Tobias Wolff’s work, which I did, and that inluded Our Story Begins. I probably didn’t put that on this list because Wolff was on my list last year. Still, no way I’d put it above Meloy’s.

    As for Moore, last night I started Lies of Silence. Nothing suspenseful has even happened yet, but I don’t want to put it down.

    Also, I agree with Lee!

  6. Since our favorites tend to overlap and we put each other onto a lot of authors — and since we both have that Western North American background that influences our reading — it is no surprise that I have read eight of your twelve and share your very high opinion of them. And that includes putting the Meloy stories and Butcher’s Crossing a notch about the rest — I suspect you and I are in a minority in ranking that Williams’ novel so high, but like you I think all three of his are special in their own way. As for Meloy, I am midway through Liars and Saints and have consciously set it aside because I don’t want the wonderful experience to end too soon.

    I’ve just order Egan and another minor Ozick (can’t find The Cannibal Galaxy; — opted for Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories instead), so that takes me up to 10 of your 12.

    One of the remainder is Brian Moore, whom I read a lot of in my youth (when he was one of the few “Canadian” authors who got published — mainly because he was Irish), but have not returned to recently. Given the enthusiasm of both yourself and John Self, I might have to consider going back to him — it won’t be an expensive task since I know there are a number of volumes on the shelves.

  7. Could you straighten out my coding error for me? Thanks.

  8. Kerry says:

    You, as KfC, have done me the service (disservice) of including almost exclusively both books and authors I have not read. Wharton and Ethan Frome being a notable exception. Of course, that happens to be one of my all-time favorite reads, lending even more (directly personal to me) credibility than the vast store you’d already earned. Damn you. Now they all go on the TBR.

    But where to begin? I will take the overlap between your and KfC’s lists:

    In a Strange Room by Galgut (and the Booker shortlist and John Self, etc., etc.)

    Both Ways is the Only Way I Want it by Meloy (that title is the best in a long while, and sounds like the rest of the writing is pretty awesome too)

    Light Lifting by Maclead. I assume this is as good a place to start with the family as anywhere….

    Add to that, the multiple appearances of Cesar Aira on your list demand some of my attention.

    Butcher’s Crossing and Montana 1948 had only just drifted off the periphery of my consciousness. Back on the list, you sneaks.

    Thanks Trevor. My sagging bookshelves are less appreciative.

    (Like John Self, I find fault with the fact that your list looks way more intriguing than my own. Also like John, I will minimize the impact of this by delaying the release of my own top 10. Of course, John Self will then directly upstage me…..maybe a June listing would allow me to feel less inadequate about the whole thing….heh…)

  9. Colette Jones says:

    Be sure to visit The Moore The Merrier at:

    http://themoorethemerrier.wordpress.com/

    I’m sure Lizzy Siddal will set you and KfC up as contributors if you want. Then you can just copy your reviews over.

  10. leroyhunter says:

    A great list Trevor. Particular thanks from me for championing Aira, who is one of my personal reading “finds” of the year.

    Meloy ahead of Wolff? Wow, that speaks volumes. I’ve nearly bought Both Ways.. a couple of times, but the UK/Ireland cover keeps putting me off. Silly, I know, I guess I’ll just take the plunge.

    I have Butcher’s Crossing on my shelf (along with Warlock by Oakley Hall) and am quite excited about getting to it. Wharton is another gap I hope to patch in 2011. I’d possibly put another Frayn, Towards the End of the Morning, on my own “best of 2010″ list, and I have Headlong on the shelf but am rationing it.

    Otherwise, a big yes to Galgut and thanks to you I have Harry Mulisch and Larry Watson on the wishlist. More of the same in 2011 please!

  11. Trevor says:

    Kevin, coding fixed! And thanks for putting me onto some of these authors. My 2011 reading is going to be very much a follow-up of them all.

    Kerry, that is the most complimentary curse I’ve ever received! I see you just posted on The Age of Innocence, so I look forward to reading your thoughts there and, if you go that way, joining your year of Wharton. I know I will read Custom of the Country soon. And, whatever you say about your list, I’m still anxious to see it!

    Colette, the good news is that I’m already a contributor to The Moore the Merrier. The bad news is that I haven’t contributed yet. I am zipping through Lies of Silence, though, so soon.

    Leroy, I do wonder how many people will agree with putting Meloy ahead of Wolff. I love Tobias Wolff and consider him to be in the top tier. Meloy’s stories, though, did something different to me.

    And I do hope that 2011 produces more of the same!

  12. stujallen says:

    a diverse list ,just pondering mine but nearly there ,all the best stu

  13. An intriguing list! I agree with you on The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne–I loved this book! Thanks to the other commenters (?) for more Moore titles :-) and for introducing me to The Moore the Merrier.

    One note about the winner of the Booker, The Finkler Question–you said this easily could have made your list. I’m halfway through this book and I just don’t get the hoopla about it…

    Happy New Year, everyone!

  14. Trevor says:

    You’re certainly not the only one to not connect with The Finkler Question, Liz. KFC hated it, even after giving it a second chance. I, on the other hand, connected to it from page one and loved it. John Self felt similar. I believe Lee Monks read it as well and liked (loved?? — Lee?) it. My guess is that if you don’t like it at the halfway point, it won’t get any better for you.

  15. Lee Monks says:

    I did, I loved it. Mind you, if I ever want cheering up, Jacobson is often the way I turn. I didn’t think it his best but it was still seriously good (and I haven’t read all of them – you’ve got to keep some back, haven’t you?) and I’m still delighted it won the prize. Kalooki Nights and The Mighty Walzer should’ve won it prior to that, easy.

    New year resolution of mine: read a Brian Moore novel.

  16. Shelley says:

    I’ve always said that Ethan Frome is the best suicide-preventive in literature: because it shows you never know how things will turn out.

    Egan is an unusual last name, and since my writing is rooted in the Dust Bowl, I’ve wondered if Jennifer Egan is related to Timothy Egan, who wrote The Worst Hard Time, a brilliant non-fiction book about that era.

  17. I own both Butcher’s Crossing and In a Strange Room, both in response to your reviews I believe (certainly the Galgut was).

    The Meloy is a must read really. Kevin recommended the same title to me the other day, and here it makes your top two. Somehow it didn’t tempt, but that level of recommendation simply can’t be ignored. I’ll pick it up in the New Year.

    The Watson is intriguing, I’m going to think about that one. Not my usual territory, but quiet novels often miss the attention they deserve.

    And of course given you’ve reminded me how impressed I was by Moore in the past (before I oddly misattributed his work to Alan Massie) that’ll definitely be going on the pile.

    A good year’s reading Trevor, from the look of it. Would you agree?

  18. Trevor says:

    A good year’s reading Trevor, from the look of it. Would you agree?

    Absolutely!

  19. I’m desperate to be given some money or book tokens so I can start tucking into the delights of various end of year lists and yours is no exception Trevor. Goon Squad has just come through the door (it’s being published by Corsair in a few months) and I’m really looking forward to it after your enthusiastic review. Montana 1948 is going to have to be bought I think, along with Butchers Crossing and I’m sorely tempted by Maile Meloy too. Of the books we’ve both read I’m really pleased to see that you liked Galgut’s latest so much, a book which has grown in my estimation after finishing it, and also that you liked Headlong so much. Frayn is a writer of huge intelligence who doesn’t seem to really be given his due at times, perhaps because his writing is so enjoyable and humorous as you point out. He is also one of the few writers to have written a perfect play in Noises Off.

    Thanks for all your work this year Trevor, I’m sorry I haven’t commented more, rest assured that I have read avidly and always look forward to reading your thoughts. All the best for the festive season and the new year.

  20. Trevor says:

    Thanks, Will, and no worries about not commenting. I’m not as good at commenting as I would like, and I assume it’s for some of the same reasons as you have :) .

    Cheers!

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